NEW YORK (JTA) — I picked up my first copy of The New Republic as a teenager in 1993. The cover featured a caricature of Ross Perot as a salivating bug with the teaser “Pox Populi.” The magazine was smart, cheeky, disputatious and highbrow. It was also very Jewish.
It was love at first sight.
Ever since college, I had been a loyal subscriber. The New Republic was my entree into a world of intellectualism and contrarian political commentary. I was introduced to many great thinkers not through reading their work but via erudite reviews in The New Republic’s back-of-the-book culture pages brilliantly curated by Leon Wieseltier.
Yet I am not particularly vexed by the question mark now hanging over the magazine’s future following the announcement this week by owner Chris Hughes that he is looking to sell it. Thanks to Hughes, I had already given up on The New Republic.
Hughes, a Facebook tycoon who had been Mark Zuckerberg’s college roommate, purchased the venerable magazine in 2012 in an attempt to give himself a higher profile in the world of politics and media. He poured $20 million into the little magazine and its website.
But he soon became frustrated with his perennially unprofitable new acquisition and announced vague plans to turn the storied magazine into a “vertically integrated digital media company.” Hughes’ hired help as the magazine’s CEO, Guy Vidra, vowed to shake up the publication and to “break” things.
In December 2014, Hughes forced out the magazine’s respected editor, Franklin Foer. This prompted much of the rest of the editorial staff — great editors and writers like Wieseltier, Judith Shulevitz, Jeffrey Rosen, John Judis and Julia Ioffe — to quit en masse.
I did what any devoted reader would do: I canceled my subscription. I was heartbroken.
What was so great about the old New Republic? Above all, it was unpredictable. Unlike some other political magazines (Commentary, The Nation), The New Republic did not fit into a neat ideological box. It was heterodox. Its contributors ranged from social democrats to neoconservatives. TNR alum Mickey Kaus called the magazine “left on welfare, right on warfare.” Admittedly it may have more consistently been the latter than the former, and I don’t intend that as a compliment.
One apt criticism often leveled at The New Republic was that its writers were not particularly diverse in their backgrounds. They were predominantly men, disproportionately graduates of the Ivy League and overwhelmingly white. They were also largely Jewish.
Indeed, over the past four decades, The New Republic reflected a very particular strand of Jewish liberalism: bullish on America’s ability to advance the cause of freedom, contemptuous of political correctness, often skeptical of race-conscious public policies, implacably opposed to totalitarianism, committed to civil liberties and gay rights, and pugnaciously pro-Israel.
Its politics were shaped by experience with the excesses of the left: Marty Peretz, the magazine’s previous owner for 35 years, was a former New Leftist who moved rightward partly owing to his encounters with virulent anti-Zionism among his fellow travelers.
This outlook had its virtues. The magazine played an outsize role in challenging liberal orthodoxies and rethinking Democratic politics during the 1980s and 1990s.
But this worldview also helped lead The New Republic down some dead ends. The magazine’s coverage of racial issues caused lasting anger. Peretz’s passion for Israel meant that the magazine could be less than freewheeling in this area, though it still featured many insightful commentators on the topic. Its enthusiasm for the 2003 Iraq War proved to be deeply misguided. And its endorsement of Joseph Lieberman’s hopeless 2004 presidential bid underscored how distant it had grown from the mainstream of American liberalism.
Peretz, who funded the magazine, did manage to keep it interesting, even as his meddlesome and temperamental ways often made many of its editors’ lives more interesting than they would have liked. But he was also a liability. His strident rants on his blog insulted various minority groups. Eventually he was unable to continue covering the magazine’s annual losses.
For all its flaws, The New Republic was, over the nearly two decades I subscribed, a reliably stimulating magazine. Its mix of quality reporting, big-idea think pieces and learned book reviews kept me opening each issue with a sense of excitement. Even on weeks when the political journalism was underwhelming, I could find something of value in Wieseltier’s culture section, which, while ranging widely, gave copious coverage to Jewish scholarship and thought. The magazine’s blend of provocation and principled liberalism informed the way I saw the world, even as I differed with the magazine’s editorial line on specific issues.
Due to my pique at the exodus of my favorite journalists, I have not followed the magazine too closely for the past year. Hughes’ hire as The New Republic’s new editor, Gabriel Snyder, diversified the magazine’s staff, and he seems to have hired talented people and published many fine articles.
But along with its previous staff, The New Republic lost its distinctive brand of liberalism. Now with Hughes looking to ditch the magazine, it’s unclear whether there will be an opportunity to build a new identity for TNR.
I don’t mean to boast about my powers of perception, but I sensed Hughes was trouble from the get-go. First, there was his letter to readers upon buying a magazine that had carried the banner of American liberalism for nearly 100 years in which Hughes neglected to even use the “l-word.” The next worrying sign was when Hughes took the title of editor-in-chief and began writing editorials, notwithstanding the fact that his experience in the world of journalism and political ideas was essentially nil.
Maybe even Hughes can now see that a mix of hubris and naiveté are not very good qualities in a magazine publisher.
In his Monday morning letter to the magazine’s staff, Hughes wrote: “The unanswered question for The New Republic remains: can it find a sustainable business model that will power its journalism in the decades to come?”
Yes, there is a potential business model: a wealthy owner who is willing to lose some money every year because he or she values the magazine’s contributions to the country’s public debate and who doesn’t have pie-in-the-sky delusions that lead to blowing $20 million in short order and chasing out the editorial talent.
Political magazines don’t tend to make money. The New Republic’s value wasn’t its elusive potential to become something bigger, shinier and solvent. It was in being what it always had been at its best, a lively and provocative journal of ideas, warts and all.
(Daniel Treiman is a student at New York University School of Law. He is a former opinion editor of the Forward and a former managing editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.)